Bottle to Throttle: A Short History of Drunk Pilots

Photograph by 4FR

Last Friday, 48 year-old American Eagle pilot Kolbjorn Jarle Kristiansen was forced from the cockpit after airline employees detected booze on him at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Kristiansen subsequently failed a breathalyzer, was arrested, and currently awaits blood tests that will reveal how drunk he really was. He is suspended and faces an internal investigation that could cost him his job.

In the U.S., federal rules prohibit a pilot from operating an aircraft if he or she has a blood-alcohol content of .04 percent or higher—or within eight hours of having consumed an alcoholic beverage, the period known as “bottle to throttle.” As years of FAA simulator studies have shown, in addition to studies by Stanford University’s Aviation Safety Laboratory, impairment from the effects of alcohol occurs at surprisingly low levels. Bad hangovers can deeply affect pilot performance, as well. (How far we’ve come from the days when Air France flight attendants would, as a matter of course, serve pilots wine with their mid-flight meals.)

While inebriated pilots are rare, they do exist. In the late 1970s, a pilot got drunk in a bar called the Forked River House in Lacey Township, N.J., where he recruited two other patrons and then apparently buzzed the same bar in his small plane before crashing into a radio tower, killing everyone on board. In 1987, a California joy-flyer who, according to news reports had  “guzzled beer shortly before takeoff,” was later charged with murder after he flew a rented four-seat Piper PA-28 so low over the Pacific Ocean that he tried to “get water on the wing tip,” a maneuver that killed two of the four passengers. Perhaps the most infamous instance of drunk flying occurred in 1977, when a Japan Air cargo flight crashed in Anchorage, Alaska, shortly after taking off. The pilot, two co-pilots, two cargo handlers, and 65 beef cattle didn’t survive after the DC-8 stalled at an altitude of 160 feet and plummeted to the ground. The pilot, who was earlier seen staggering and slurring his words, had a blood-alcohol content about three times the amount that would have landed him behind bars if he were driving a pickup truck.

According to Kelly Nantel, director of public affairs at the National Transportation Safety Board, there’s never been a commercial airline crash caused by a drunk pilot. And as former airline pilot John Cox told USA Today in 2010, the FAA conducts numerous tests—more than 10,000 pilots are tested every year, with about 12 failing, on average—and crew members serve as barriers of protection against tipsy captains and co-captains. That type of colleague intervention occurred with a Qantas pilot last summer, an Air Tran pilot in 2011, and two America West pilots who in 2002 knocked back 14 beers together and rang up a $144 tab at a Florida sports bar, then tried to fly about 5 1/2 hours later; they were reported to the authorities by security workers. The pilots were both sentenced to prison in 2009. (The captain, who had been on probation for a DUI, received a five-year sentence, and the co-pilot received 2 years.)

Back in 1990, all three members of a Northwest Airlines flight crew were legally intoxicated when they flew 91 passengers aboard a trip from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis, a roughly hour-long journey whose landing came without incident. The authorities had received a tip from someone who had seen them drinking in a bar the previous evening. They all served prison sentences, though two of the pilots, Norman Lyle Prouse and Joseph Balzer (the latter would eventually write the book Flying Drunk, published in 2009), were able to resume their careers after undergoing rehabilitation. According to his website, Balzer is now flying for American Airlines.

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